Like Xi, Putin is not used to seeing the public challenge him and emerge victorious. But he, too, experienced a dose of anger from his own people.
When security forces arrested an investigative reporter and manufactured phony drug charges against him, Russians reacted with fury. Putin has largely managed to suppress independent media, and many journalists critical of the government have died under mysterious circumstances. So the arrest of Ivan Golunov, a reporter for the Latvia-based Meduza covering political corruption and organized crime, wasn’t surprising—but the reaction was. His detention seemed to strike a nerve, to drop a last straw on the mountain of frustrations. Normally acquiescent business publications splashed a headline across their front pages, “We are all Golunov,” while protesters, at great personal risk, surrounded police headquarters demanding his release. Incredibly, Golunov was let go, all charges dropped.
It was a stunning reversal for the government, perhaps a sign that Putin is growing nervous. Things are not going so well. The nationalist fervor that followed his annexation of Crimea has cooled. Polls show that large numbers of Russians no longer trust him, especially now that the economy is stagnant. When he held his annual televised call-in show, a question somehow got through producers, flashing on television screens across the country. “Only one question,” it read, “When will you go away?”